Have agencies lost their sense of purpose?

The Local Collective's Michael Ash asks why clients' obsession with brand purpose hasn't extended to their agency partners.

By Michael Ash

William H. McRaven is a former U.S. Navy admiral who wrote Make Your Bed and Spec Ops, the latter of which is the seminal book on special operations that Navy SEALS read to prepare for their careers. The theory of special operations has six core components for planning, preparing and executing a mission. Purpose is one of them, outlined as a key moral factor for executing an operation successfully. Like McRaven advocates, purpose must be clearly defined by the mission statement and every stakeholder needs to “be inspired with a sense of personal dedication that knows no limitations.”

Purpose-driven brands that rally consumers behind significant issues are all the rave these days, but we hardly talk about ad agencies that rally their own employees. It’s been a rough decade in adland, with companies squeezing retainers, consultancies entering the den and mergers becoming a pastime for the stock market. Teams are shrinking quickly and clients are demanding more specialized pods to hop on special missions. Which, when you think about it, is not that different from unconventional warfare. Unfortunately, this mental warfare in our industry has fostered more mercenaries than it has gained soldiers. Ad folks are jumping from one ship to another without any real allegiances, other than people they’d like to work with, which is what happens when people are not personally invested in the organizations they work for.

A few weeks ago, we conducted a small survey among practitioners in advertising through a combination of Twitter ads and marketing slack groups. The respondents spanned all levels and departments of Canadian agencies. Of the people who responded, 31% said their agency’s brand purpose was extremely important for their sense of belonging, while a larger group swayed between very important and somewhat important.

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But ironically, when I reached out to people independently, very few of them could actually explain what their agencies stood for. And I don’t mean words like data, disruption, digital, creativity or being agile. Those are all table stakes now. I mean the reason the agency does what it does in a certain way – its purpose.

So what’s stopping us from creating a clear-cut purpose? I think part of the challenge might be that brands and practitioners are so busy looking to the stars (big data) for answers that they’re forgetting to look in their backyards to make sense of it all. In fact, we’re finding that a lot of businesses are turning to local insights to rally their troops, but they might not be realizing it. The easiest way to explain this parallel might be with some recent brand work. First, a global brand like Burger King found its purpose in daily traffic jams within Mexico City, while a tiny film festival’s pursuit to help preserve local silent films in Canada gained traction across the ocean in Italy. Both local campaigns were noticed by the global village and, ironically, get the universal appeal that most marketers are after to begin with. In short, local insights can give way to more meaningful work.

That’s the purpose we are guided by at The Local Collective, but how each agency comes up with that meaningful work and creates their own sense of purpose can be their own. As long as we put in the time to craft something meaningful to stand behind, we’ll gain more soldiers than mercenaries in our industry. Because let’s remember, the difference between a mercenary and a soldier is simple. One fights for a purpose, the other for the highest bidder.

Michael Ash is director of integrated strategy at Toronto-based agency The Local Collective.